A mecca for hard-core scuba divers and laid-back beach types, this tiny Central American country on the Caribbean has even more to offer—vast ancient ruins, stunning native crafts and a wealth of exotic flora and fauna—for those who venture off the beaten path
Author Joe Keohane Photography Al Argueta
DAY TWO | Your hotel shower is in a screened room abutting a small backyard (which itself adjoins a patio with a private plunge pool). This grants you the benefit of showering outside without risk of mistreatment by the local insect community. You wash off what’s left of yesterday’s bug spray and sunscreen, pack your bags, enjoy some more coffee and fry jack, and hit the road.
You motor along the Western Highway to the capital, Belmopan, and then turn south onto the scenic Hummingbird Highway. You follow the road, snaking through mountain passes, along farms and ranches, and past small, scattershot villages, where children ride bikes on dirt roads between brightly colored homes and their parents chat in “cool spots”: unadorned roadside establishments offering shade and cold drinks.
The Hummingbird ends at the Southern Highway, which then takes you south to Maya Center, a tiny Mayan village that serves as the gateway to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, home of the world’s first jaguar preserve. First stop is the craft center, where Mayan women sell a wide array of locally made pieces. After picking up an incongruously futuristic jade mask that manages to bridge the gap between scary and beautiful, you drive seven miles of rough road uphill to the trailhead. You don’t spot any jaguars, but the moderately strenuous 90-minute hike that ensues takes you past a waterfall and up to Ben’s Bluff, a clearing with a terrific vista of the surrounding forest.
The sun is setting as you pull onto the Placencia Peninsula, south of Maya Center. The road here was paved just two years ago, triggering a boom that transformed this formerly quiet string of fishing villages into globally sought-after real estate. You drive past hotels and large water front houses under frantic construction before reaching the end of the peninsula and the town of Placencia, which still retains plenty of laid-back charm. You settle in at Wendy’s, a beloved 10-year-old restaurant specializing in Creole and Spanish food, and order chirmole, a traditional spicy black bean soup made with chicken and boiled eggs. You round out the meal with the cheese Creole shrimp, which comes in a delicate jack cheese sauce, accompanied by a side of rice cooked in coconut milk.
Sated, you shuffle back to the car and drive north for 15 minutes to your next hotel, Robert’s Grove Beach Resort. The most distinctive feature here is a mellow thatched-roof bar at the end of a long pier. It calls. You drop your bags, walk out, grab a seat and nurse a Robert’s Punch: rum, coconut rum and Nance liqueur, plus pineapple and other fruit juices. Staring out over the darkened sea, listening to the waves lap against the pilings and enjoying the stiffening breeze, you’re beginning to grasp the restorative properties of coastal Belize.